Rising star Shaun Williams has his eyes on Irish prize
AS a native of Malahide, Shaun Williams can remember making the short trip with his teenage mates to watch Ireland train at Gannon Park.
Now that he's a 27-year-old pro footballer, the Millwall man monitors their work from afar with the niggling frustration that he is still a spectator.
That could change in the coming months, amid reports that Martin O'Neill has been impressed by the ball-playing midfielder on his visits to watch David Forde.
Williams is by no means a self-promoter and is unlikely to ever win a shouting contest. But, in keeping with his composed style of play, there is a quiet assurance about this late developer that is turning heads.
"It's on my mind a lot," he confessed last week, as he discussed the prospect of international recognition that has accompanied his impressive start to the campaign for Ian Holloway's side.
Part of him accepts that he has to be patient because he only made the jump to Championship level in January when Millwall raided MK Dons for a player who moved to England in 2011 as a 24-year-old after the collapse of Sporting Fingal.
However, the opportunity to rub shoulders with a higher calibre of player has set the bar high for the Dubliner and that's why his gut instinct is to think big.
"I think I could hold my own," he says, with a nod to the Irish set-up. "I think I'd be there to push for a place in time.
"I know I have only moved up a level and this is only my first full season in the Championship. But I think the style of international football might suit me. I've spoken to a few of the lads that have played it and they think it would be ideal for me."
That's not idle talk. Williams does have a growing fanbase because of his measured approach and propensity for ball retention. O'Neill recently took in Millwall's outing with Sheffield Wednesday, a game where the left-footed Irishman in the engine room made 65 passes - more than anyone else on the park.
He has become an integral part of Holloway's plans this term, benefiting from the absence of key man Nicky Bailey to really take centre stage in a prolonged run in his favoured midfield berth.
Williams is such a versatile operator that he was used extensively as a defender by MK Dons, a position that began to grate over time.
"I enjoyed it at the start," he recalls, "But then I got quite frustrated with it.
"It was boring me a little bit when I wasn't involved in the game an awful lot. I wanted to play in midfield."
He's been granted his wish by Holloway, who thinks there is more to come from an individual who he described as a 'Iniesta, Xavi or Charlie Adam' type when he recruited him to help in their successful fight with the drop last term.
"I just took it as a compliment," chuckles Williams, who admits it took him a while to suss out the character of his larger-than-life boss.
"Mad as a brush," he continues. "He's very good once you step onto the training pitch. Off it, you can have a laugh, but he's got discipline. I'm more laid-back myself and when he was giving out to me the first few times I didn't know if he was joking or not. But I know what he's about now."
Williams has encountered quite a few characters on his ascent to this level. He is another League of Ireland success story, but a relatively low-profile one to this juncture.
Perhaps that could be attributed to his career graph. He started off on the fringes of a professional Drogheda United set-up and was sent on loan to gain experience with Finn Harps and Dundalk; the latter were in the First Division at the time.
"You learn from playing so that's why I had to go away," he muses.
The light-framed skilful performer was then recruited by Fingal for their ambitious project, which ultimately never received enough support to keep it going.
Williams was recognised by peers but didn't have a big group of fans banging the drum about his capabilities. Nevertheless, he flourished under the management of Liam Buckley and his preference for an expansive style.
"I have been lucky," he says, "that most of my teams have tried to play the way I like to play."
He went across the water late - Fingal going bust was the catalyst - and says that he was chilled about the belated recognition.
"I wasn't worried," he claims. "It wasn't the be all and end all really. I wasn't looking at other people wishing that it was me."
Once he emigrated, settling was straightforward. His son, Frankie, arrived eight weeks ago and is keeping Williams and his partner Sinead very busy. "It's a lot more responsibility trying to keep someone else alive," he says, matter of factly.
The new family member has encouraged him to visit home a little more. He has found living away easier than anticipated; the fact that most of his pals have emigrated removed one huge potential source of homesickness.
Still, while he is adjusting to the increased cost of London life, the chance to pop around the corner for national service would be special.
"Based in Portmarnock and training in Malahide, that'd be ideal," he laughs.
Age is no barrier, as recent evidence would suggest. "There's been a lot of players that have joined the team late," he observes, "Keith Andrews, Keith Fahey and now Stephen Quinn as well. I'd never give up that hope."
With O'Neill favouring an approach that looks for a safe pair of feet, a lifelong ambition could be realised.